The Messy Intersection of Chronic Pain and Mental Health


I wake up in pain each and every single day. Sometimes it’s my facial nerve, sending ripples across the back of my skull. Sometimes it’s a migraine, which can feel like a suffocating blood pressure cuff that’s been stapled to my skin. Sometimes it’s my stomach, raging from the esophogeal ulcer that thinks it’s ha-ha-hilarious to keep showing up at my house unannounced. It’s like an anatomical roulette wheel over here.

I also fall asleep with pain each and every single day. Rinse and repeat from what I experienced just 12, 15, 18 hours ago. This is my screwed-up normal and I have (mostly) accepted it. Beginning and ending each day in pain are the two main constants that I almost, dare I say, rely on? Let me explain.

Two years ago, when I quit my full-time job, I started down a path of restructuring my life to better fit around my illness – as opposed to expecting my illness to fit inside the cracks of what was left after I worked 50 hours and commuted 10 to 12 hours a week. News flash: I was empty. But now, I know how hard to push myself and what it looks like when my body has wrung itself out to dry. I know what it takes to rewind the crumbling and I am (mostly) OK at avoiding a complete bottoming out. But hey, I’m not perfect.

I can come up with a trillion metaphors to explain the physical side of my life to you. But here’s what I can’t do – I can’t wrap my head around how to simultaneously nurture both my mental health and my physical health.

What do you do when you are happy enough but not joyous? Sad enough but it’s not all-consuming Hollow enough to notice, but not enough to be concerned? All I know is that I am sick. And in pain. And all of that is almost too much to worry about how I’m doing otherwise.

But since it’s May and we’re recognizing mental health month here at The Mighty, I am forcing myself to look at the intersection of my pain and emotion. And this is what I’ve come up with.

Nothing.

There are no guidelines on how being chronically ill is supposed to make you feel. Some people want you to play up your pain so they know it’s there, while others want you to champion through it so they don’t have to deal with it. (Notice how both of those have to do with making others feel comfortable? That’s funny.) Some articles suggest that forced happiness can help you take on an aura of actual happiness. Others say that you should allow yourself to feel the bottom of the ocean just so that you know it’s there.

Being sick is like a revolving door of intensity. On some days, the catastrophic pain trumps the way you feel. You have one goal: make it better. On others, you can feel perpetually pulverized by the way you’re trapped in a body that continuously fails. You have one goal: make it better. But how does one balance the betterment?

I’m not so sure if you do, or if you even can. All you can do is just start and end the day knowing that you slayed the day’s most prominent dragon. Maybe the dragon is pain today. Maybe the dragon is full-on despair tomorrow. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll be able to have a day once in a harvest moon where the dragon is neither.

And maybe then, you’ll take a nap and I’ll quit making medieval references. Here’s hoping.

Getty Image by m-gucci


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